Night Train

TrainTimmy isn’t a bad boy. This is very clear in his mind. Momma asks him, now you don’t want to be a bad boy do you? And he knows the answer is no. Really he doesn’t though. He wants to be good. But he can’t sleep. It isn’t summer but the sheets keep sticking to his skin. It’s just too hot. He thinks about the brook behind the house, and how much cooler he would be if he went swimming. He starts thinking about it after dark, well after dark, when Momma and Daddy have turned off the radio for the night. By the time they’re quiet all he can think of is the cool water.

So he climbs out of bed, quietly. His plan is complete: a swim, a cooling dip, then back in bed. He has pictured every step with the clarity of any six year old. He will do this and no one will ever know. No one will call him a bad boy.

Outside the world is not hot and Timmy’s plans explode like the poof of his breath in the air. How could the house be so hot and the outside so cold? He doesn’t understand but he hops from one foot to the other, not making sense of it but still headed toward the brook. He has a vague notion of March and that maybe the wood stove made the house too hot. His mind is suddenly fuzzy, the clear plans of a second ago seem distant.

He takes another step toward the brook and then he sees the light. A circle of bright yellow light coming toward him from just over the bank, a train he realizes. It pulls up to the other side of the brook as if there were train tracks there, perfectly silent. His mind springs to life, memorizing rivets and gears, watching the moonlight paint the black engine. Light splashes over passenger cars, people seated in fancy dress and plain clothes, all of them looking forward. Old men, young men, women and babies in another car, looking forward as if the train always ran through his backyard when he’s never seen it here before, but then, he knows in a way that even a six year old must know, that there isn’t another train like this, not anywhere.

The engine comes to a halt with a shrill hiss of steam. He’s never imagined anything so fascinating, anything as magical and scary. A conductor leans out, a man in a fine black suit, formal with a brass watch fob looped over his modest belly.

“Good evening, Timmy. Fancy a ride on the night train?” The man has no accent, no hint of malice in his voice, and though Timmy knows he should be wary, the train beckons to him.

“How long?” His squeaks out the question, sounding small and unsure.

“Well now, some people they ride for a long time, years and years and years. But a young man like yourself, I suspect you’d ride just a little while. Just step into the brook, and I’ll get your hand from this side.” His hand comes out, clean with trimmed finger nails, it’s a trustworthy hand on a trustworthy man, but oddly Timmy doesn’t trust him.

“I’d come back right here? To Momma and Daddy?”

The faces in the windows turn to him, the heads moving in perfect unison, mouths dropping open. Their empty jaws seem too wide and somehow toothless. He’s asked the right question, but somehow they think wrong of him. He can feel the disapproval coming out of their black eyes.

“Hmmm, can’t say I know if you’d come back right here. Maybe near here.”

“And Momma and Daddy?”

“Oh we’d get you a pair. The train’s real good about that.” He chuckles at the end, like he’s just told a joke, but Timmy doesn’t think so. He doesn’t think any of this funny at all. He wants a ride, oh yes, but he doesn’t trust this fancy man and his opened mouth passengers.

“Train’s got to go.” The conductor checks his regulator, a fine watch. Timmy can see the image on the outside, a train over shadowed by an hourglass. “Come on then, step into the brook Timmy and climb aboard. It’s the ride of a life time.”

“No.”

“You sure, son? Might be awhile before we get back to pick you up.”

“No.” Timmy sweats now, his feet still cold on the ground. He wonders if a fever has come over him, he must get back inside to Momma. She’ll know what to do. And yet, the train, the pretty train he so wants to ride. He feels himself take a step to the brook, the frozen grass sharp on his bare feet. The pain brings him back to his senses, and he shakes his head, then turns and runs into the house, tears streaming down his face. He does not look back, does not see the conductor smile in a way that should be kindly, does not see the passengers turn to face forward again. The night train moves on, souls to collect, stops to make.

####

There isn’t much call for steam engine operators in the world, theme parks, national parks, a handful of zoos. He’s lucky to have landed here, in Florida, where the cold doesn’t seep into his old bones the way it did that frosty March morning before he got so sick. The fever dream has never left him, the one where that big black locomotive came out of the darkness and he was so tempted to take a ride.

Only here he is, in Florida, on a night that’s hotter than most of the summer days of his youth, and something woke him. Something he can’t quite place. He slides open the glass door to the patio, letting the humidity roll into the house. Shuts it, thinking of his wife and how uneasily she sleeps these days. The change is on her, and he worries about that. But still, it wasn’t what woke him. Something else, something familiar but not.

Then he hears it again, the low whistle of an engine. All smoke and fire, a full head of steam. He knows the sound at once. Not an engine, but that engine. And there it is, in his backyard, despite the fence, without any tracks. A gleaming black piece of machinery steams to stop just ahead of him, leaving the place where the conductor stands just a few feet away.

“Soul train needs an engineer, Timmy.” The same old man leans out, the same shirt and suit, aged and faded but impossibly not any more aged or faded.

His mouth gapes. He doesn’t know how to respond to this horrific tempting offer.

“You’ve done well for yourself. Don’t you think it’s time you took on a real train?”

The engine purrs at him, like a seductive cat. He wants to run his hands over it but he knows they’ll burn. He’s had enough of those burns to remember the sting, but then how many trains run without tracks, in his backyard, after midnight, in Florida? It’s all impossible so he reaches out to stroke the metal. There is no burn, no pain, heat yes, agony no.

“She likes you.” The conductor grins, a mouth with too many teeth but friendly just the same. “You should feel honored.”

Then all at once he does. He remembers trains upon trains, drawing them with waxy crayons and polishing models. Every train he every drove, pushing the engines to their limits. None of them were ever this good, this enticing, and he’s proud that she likes him. His hand wraps around the metal bar, hangs on for a minute one foot on the yard, one on that first polished step.

For a second he thinks of his wife, the grandchildren. Idly his mind turns to work and the things he meant to do tomorrow. Then his foot reaches off the ground, touching that next step. His pajamas change into engineer’s coveralls, heavy denim without the grease streaks and stains he expects. A pressed shirt, striped in white and light blue, comes over him and around his head a cap presses his hair down. Everything else is forgotten.

“Welcome to the night train.” The conductor smiles.

A Quilter’s Fable

Once upon a time a widow had three daughters. The first two were extravagant but the third was thrifty. While her sisters longed for fine things, the youngest daughter spent her time sewing dress scraps into elaborate quilts with her mother. When the time came for the sisters to be married, the first two daughters choose men who could buy them dresses of velvet and silk. The youngest daughter chose a man who would let her quilt with her mother. When her work was done for the day, the youngest daughter would return home to the sewing room and quilt as her mother sat rocking in a rocking chair. The two older sisters spent their time at parties and dances. They rarely came to visit their poor mother.

One sad day the mother died and the girls gathered for the reading of her will. Each daughter was to receive one quilt, then the house would be sealed for a week. At the end of the week, the daughters could take whatever they wanted from the house. The youngest daughter was pleased to have a simple nine patch quilt that she and her mother had made together, but her two older sisters fumed. They didn’t want blankets made of rags. They threw their quilts down and marched off. The youngest daughter picked up the quilts and went home to cry for her mother.

The older sisters plotted to sneak into the house before the week was up and take any money or jewelry they could find. The two waited until the darkest part of a very dark night to sneak inside. They searched and searched for jewelry and money, finally ending up in the sewing room. When one greedy sister opened their mother’s sewing box, the sewing scissors flew out cutting the girls’ dresses. Snip, snip, snip went the scissors, and down fell squares of velvet and diamonds of silk. Snip, snip, snip, the scissors went again and long strips of snowy white lace fell from their petticoats. The two sisters ran empty handed from the house wearing only rags.

When it came time to claim their inheritance, the older sisters were too scared of the haunted scissors to enter. The youngest daughter couldn’t understand their fears. She went inside and up to the sewing room where she had spent so many hours working happily with her mother. There she found a quilt she had never seen before, it had elaborate wheels of velvet and silk, with borders of soft white lace and though the girl had never seen her mother work on it her mother’s initials were neatly stitched in the corner.

Ghost Cleaner

“The house is kinda of different,” the real estate agent said. She sounded nervous, like maybe I wouldn’t be able to do my job. Renovating this house wouldn’t be easy, she’d told me while she took me through the warren of rooms.”The old man that lived here was forever cementing over parts of the yard.”

“What else?”

“Nothing else. College professor since after WWII, did all the repairs himself, and died at over 100.”

“Long time for a man to live,” I noted, more to myself than to her.

I walked from one white paved section of backyard to another. The only grass on the lot was a skinny strip on each side of an old fashioned swimming pool, but dozens of house plants filled ledges and counter tops.

“It’s weird but I’ll take it.”

 

I verified the house was haunted after the second week. There was a cat I always saw out of the corner of my eye, then a little girl, about three, with long dark hair. There for a second and then gone. The way they do.

The professor who owned the house turned the side yard into an office. I found the sewing machine after I knew about the haunting, neatly stored in an original wooden box. A gift from the 1950s, packaged up with everything but a bow. Strange that I’ve worked with antiques for years and never found this one. Until, just after I realized the house was haunted, it shows up here, like the day was my very own private Christmas.

The detective showed up the next morning.

“Evelyn,” she smiled but didn’t hold out a badge. “With the Pinkerton agency.”

“The professor, the man who lived here, he had a secret, didn’t he?” I didn’t bother to let my surprise show.

“A lot of them probably, but I only need to know one.” She walked through the house like she knew her way, from room to room past all the cheap white walls he’d put in by himself. I was ripping them down one by one, but so far no bodies.  “You’re doing a lot of work on the place.”

“Haven’t found anything though.” Except the sewing machine I’d always tried to find, sitting there like a present. Maybe the house was giving it to me to say thanks for looking or maybe it was a bribe to stop. I hadn’t touched it. I’m the type who insists on looking a gift horse in the mouth.

“Too bad. Maybe when you do, the ghosts in this place can rest.”

“Will you?”

She turned and blinked at me, a vision in her crisp suit seventy years out of date.

“Rest easy with the others I mean.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You’re surprisingly perceptive.”

“Don’t want to be, I just am.”

“How long have you known about me? Long enough that I’ve been making a fool of myself, you and your damn perceptive nature.”

“Don’t want to be, I just am.” But that didn’t satisfy her. I cleaned out ghosts but I didn’t like angry ones. “You look like a college girl, only a little out of date. And there haven’t been Pinkertons in this century.”

“I was a college girl,” she explained. “Then my sister disappeared.”

“’Bout yeah high?” I held my hand up. She nodded, not sure she wanted to talk to me anymore. “Out by the pool.”

We went that way and the pump started to seize, hissing spit and dirty water. “Can you fix it?”

“Don’t think I should.” And I didn’t, because now that I thought about it, pouring concrete over a piece of ground was a good way to hide a grave, maybe a good way to quiet a ghost.

“You do this a lot, don’t you?”

“It’s a living. Find a house, clean it up, break down some walls, new paint. Ghosts drive the price way down, it’s easier to flip it when it’s clean.”

“You don’t mean sanitary.”

I shook my head. “It’s not hard. All you have to do is find out their secret, speak it out loud, and they’re gone. It’s the power of the secret that binds them here, all of them.”

“And the professor? What’s his secret?”  She challenged me with it, like there was no way I could’ve figured that out.  “That he’s a murderer?”

“No, I mean, he is, sure, but it’ll be more than that for him. There’s you, the girl, the cat, not enough bodies for pure murderer.”

“There could be more, you should dig up the yard.”

“I’ll bring in a thumper.” She cocked her head at me confused. “It’s a device that thumps the ground, then sends out an ultra sound wave so you can see where the bones are. But you don’t need the bones only the secret.”

“And you’re going to guess his? Just like that? Like it’s easy?” She was getting angry again.

“It’s never easy. There aren’t a lot of clues left behind but secrets will out.”  The pump started to rattle in her anger, shaking like it was ready to break itself apart. That might not be a bad thing. “Besides there aren’t many secrets worth killing for.”

“Then name me one.”

“Oh that he was black, maybe, passing for white, or a woman, passing for a man. You could do that back then, as long as nobody found out.  Someone always finds out.”

“I did.” Anger washed away by the smugness. “It’s the sewing machine that proves it.”

“A woman passing for a man then?”

Her smile turned sour.

“Don’t be cross, I do this all the time.” The pump exploded with a burst of steam loud enough that, as the only living person in the yard, I jumped. The ground split underneath it, and I saw the edges of a tin box. “This is the big reveal,” I told her, not bothering to look. The paper inside was a little damp and little moldy, a birth certificate.  Huh. “Passing for a white and a man. The sewing machine should’ve tipped me off.”

“That’s how I got it,” she said but when I turned around she was already fading, washed away like dirt from bones. I looked down in the hole, and saw the hands first. The professor had killed her with the evidence she found, and then put the pump over top of her. Not a bad plan, worked for nearly six decades, but things like that don’t hold up against me, I’m a ghost cleaner. Don’t want to be, but I am.

Dancing in the kitchen

 She’s there in old family films, her tan legs kicking just a bit higher and straighter than all the other Aunts in a kick line. They’re laughing but something about her face, about Aunt Lucy’s face, as she dances is transcendent, even during a silly little fake dance, trying not to run into the BBQ grill while kids in swim suits run around them. She doesn’t see the backyard filled with family or smell the smoke. When she dances, Aunt Lucy sees something else, and it makes her smile wider than all the other Aunts.

My father tells stories about her, and dancing is always in them. Walking to dance class in the snow carrying her dance shoes wrapped in newspaper in case they somehow fall into the wet slush. She danced in wet shoes once and ended up with dozens of tiny blisters. Dad broke them for her, with the sadistic glee that only a little brother can have. She went back to class the next day, moleskins on her feet and her shoes half dried.

She danced through school and high school, danced with the boy she loved at prom. There are pictures of him, before he was Uncle Jimmy, with a goofy ruffled shirt under his prom tux. I wonder if she danced the night she left him, danced before she told him it was all over, that she loved dancing more than she loved him. Danced and then left on the train to New York City, with poor Jimmy standing by the platform saying he would wait forever.

He didn’t wait forever.

She ended up near Broadway in a shoebox of an apartment shared with three other girls. Dad saw her there, once, before he shipped out to Vietnam. She was so happy, he said, as if happiness was the saddest thing that could happen. So happy to dance in a little off Broadway show and wait for her big break.

And then that big break happened, that audition that finally went right. She got the part. Giddy with it. Dancing not just on stage but in front of hundreds of people. So happy she sent Dad a telegram and called home to say she’d get everyone tickets to come see her.

Dancing on air on her way to the first rehearsal, where they showed her the door to the dressing room and she saw all those other women, and a few men here and there. Everyone getting naked together. And suddenly, she couldn’t do it. Couldn’t strip down in front of everyone and have some man she didn’t know help her into a costume. She’d grown up in a small town that valued modesty. She just wanted to dance, not be naked in front of all those people.

So she took the train home, and found Jimmy again. Made him Uncle Jimmy, and then made my cousins. She only danced in the backyard kick lines, and sometimes in the kitchen on Saturday nights when we kids were supposed to be asleep. She always looked happy when she danced, but I always wondered if she thought she’d made the right choice. Happy wife and mother, modest to the end, or dancer on the stage, I always questioned if she picked the right one. I asked her once, about dancing, to see if she remembered everything my father did. Her voice was quick and unsentimental, “I went to New York once, but they made you change in a great big room, so that was that.” Then she did the dishes as if they were somehow more important than dancing.

Possession

When she got home the ashtrays were filled with cigarette butts, but only half of them were her mother’s brand.

“Did someone come by?”

“Your Aunt Peggy.” Her mother sounded just a little angry. Caroline judged her to be at the almost fighting stage of drunk. Not bad for three in the afternoon.  “She gave me this.”

The necklace floated through the air, landing on the table with a metallic clink.  Caroline picked it up, looking closer. “I’ve never seen a watch necklace before.”

“Peggy says it was your grandmother’s.” Her mother’s hands groped around the table for a drink. “Doesn’t work though. Needs a battery.”

Caroline inspected the pendent watch, smaller than a quarter and with a tiny knob on one side. She wound it, noticing an inscription on the back then put it up to her ear. “It’s working now. I guess you just have to wind it.”

“Well, la-te-da, aren’t you smart? Why don’t you make us some dinner then, Miss Smartypants?”

Caroline looked around at the dingy apartment. The curtains hadn’t been opened since she went to school. She would’ve shook at her head at the mess but she knew that would start a fight. The back of the watch said ‘There’s always time for a Mother’s love.’ The message almost made her weep. She set the time, then put the necklace back down. “You should wear this, it’s pretty.”

Her mother fingered the watch during dinner. Caroline had grocery shopped with the food stamps over the weekend, so the food was good. Not like the end of the month when she went to the food bank, coming home with stale donuts, squished bread, and half-spoiled fruit. Her mother didn’t comment on the meal just on the watch, saying it might be worth something and that maybe she would wear it, in her most combative tone. Caroline knew that voice, and escaped to her room after she filled the dishwasher. Not much later a man’s voice came from the living room walls, followed by the inevitable sounds of angry shouting, then sex. She pushed a dresser against her door, just in case, and tried to get some sleep.

###

Walking home from school she knew something was wrong, but she couldn’t tell what. The apartment just looked wrong. Worried, she didn’t figure it out until her hand was on the door knob. The blinds were open. “Mom?”

“In the bathroom.”

And sober, Caroline guessed, surprised.  Mom got worse when she was sober, angry that she had to face the world. Her mother sat on her knees in front of the toilet, the smell of bleach filling the air. “Are you sick? What’s going on?”

“What does it look like, Caroline? I’m cleaning the bathroom.” Her mother laughed, and for a second, Caroline thought her heart would break at the noise. Her mother didn’t laugh without bitterness, didn’t clean the bathroom, and certainly wasn’t sober in the afternoon. The woman in front of her was a stranger. “I’ll be done soon, why don’t you do your home work?”

The table had been cleared, the ashtrays empty. With the blinds and windows open the constant blue-gray haze of smoke had cleared out of the living room. Caroline opened a history book, only half reading the words on the page. When Mom left the bathroom she cleaned the living room, vacuuming then dusting. Yesterday Caroline would’ve guessed the woman didn’t know where the vacuum was, today she wielded it with expertise.

At dinner, another unexpected surprise, “you’ve never made pot roast before.”

“I haven’t? I should’ve. It’s my grandmother’s recipe. But it’s all thanks to you for having the ingredients in the house.”

Caroline almost choked on her food. She stared at the woman in front of her. Her mother’s hair was washed and put up in a bun. She wore a buttoned up yellow blouse, in the front, under the thin fabric the necklace looked like a bump.

“You’re wearing Great-grandma’s necklace.”

“Thanks for reminding me, I’d hate to forget to wind it and run out of time.”

###

The next morning Caroline woke up to the smell of eggs and bacon. Her mother smiled from the stove. “I have a crazy feeling about today.”

“Like what?” Crazy like not drinking? How could today get any crazier?

“I think I might apply for a job.”

“Really?”

“Well, we’re certainly not making ends meet like this, and there’s bound to be someone who’s hiring.” Mom looked around the now-clean house, almost worried.

Caroline drank her orange juice, too confused to speak.

“Finished?” At her nod, Mom took the dishes and began washing them in the sink.

“Why not use the dishwasher?”

“The what?”

Caroline pointed.

“Oh that. I wasn’t sure how to work it.”

Caroline bit her lip. Her mother knew how to work the dishwasher, then again, her mother drank away the morning. Somehow this stranger that looked like her mother, the one wearing a pressed blouse with her hair up, was hand washing dishes didn’t know how to use the machine.

“Time for you to get to school!” The stranger-mother held out a brown paper lunch bag. Caroline didn’t have the heart to remind her that they received free school lunch. She took the bag, bewildered by it all.

###

Caroline came home to another dinner in the oven, meatloaf this time. Her stranger-mother was humming an old song in the kitchen, a very old song, from the 50s at least. The thought stopped her, and even though she’d puzzled over her mother all day, she suddenly thought about someone else.

“When was grandma born?”

The stranger-mother looked up from the stove, with a slightly confused smile. “What a strange question, I’m not sure. Probably 1935.”

Caroline did the math. Her grandmother would’ve known that song. Not that it proved anything.

“Is this for school?”

“For history class,” Carolyn lied.

“That’s nice, dear.”

“Are you still wearing Grandma’s necklace?”

Stranger-mother grinned, and pulled it out to show her. “Haven’t taken it off since I put it on. It just makes me feel…” Caroline watched while she searched for the word. “Connected to her I guess.”

Caroline pressed her lips together mentally correcting, not connected, possessed. Possessed by someone who wasn’t an alcoholic, who thought taking care of her family was the most important thing in the world.

“You’ll never guess what’s in the icebox.”

“Vodka?”

“Chocolate cake to celebrate my new job!”

Caroline felt her lip tremble.

“Now don’t cry, sweetheart, it’s just during the day at the grocery store. I’ll be home when you get back from school. You won’t miss me.”

“Just promise me something,” Caroline decided.

“What’s that?”

“That you never take that necklace off.”

“What a silly thing to promise, but if it’s what you want, I promise I’ll wear it forever.” Her new mother smiled at her.

Winning Ticket

I looked down at my body thinking about the things I’d been in life. Drug user. Occasional part time employee. Troubled daughter. Needy sister. High School drop out. Yeah, I’d lived like a loser, and I died like one but I sure as heck was about to spend my afterlife like one. It was finally time to take charge of my life, except that it was my death.  Well, you know.

I’d been shot. People in the movies get shot and they go to the hospital and everything is fine. Not me. I’d been shot in front of my favorite bar, and now a crowd of people were standing around my body. I’d been dead like a minute maybe, minute and a half tops, and one of them was just now calling an ambulance. Losers.

I shook my head at all and tried to walk away, only I couldn’t I sort of floated. Two steps and I got the hang of it. Four steps and I stopped trying to walk and just sort of pushed myself forward. I went really fast. I guess that’s how the dead travel.

I knew where I was going, my ex-boyfriend’s house. We’d been broken up about three minutes longer than I’ve been dead. It went like this: tell him it’s over, tell him why (my good news), and then he drags me out of the bar and shots me. So yeah, Dave’s house was the first step on my post death review.

He was on the couch, beer in one hand, the thing he stole from me in the other.

“Give it to me!” I shouted. He jumped like fifteen feet off the couch.

“Angie? Oh my god Angie?” He looked all around but he didn’t see me. I guess ghosts don’t show up, but somehow he could hear me. I could work with that.

“You give me back what’s mine!” I shouted again. He went whiter than a sheet.

“What the hell? I’m sober. This isn’t happening.” He repeated it like fifty-five times and each time I told him to give it back. Finally he broke. “Okay, okay take it! Just leave me alone!”

He held the slip of paper out and I tried to grab for it. Too bad ghosts can’t move things. My hand just went through.  “Take it to Alice.”

“Alice? What your loser sister? No way. No way. I gotta get outta town.”

“Take it to Alice or I’ll haunt you until the day you die,” I threatened. That did it. He was in his car before another minute passed.

I willed myself back to our house, the place I shared with my parents and my sister. She was still eighteen and perfect. Always was, always would be. Well perfect anyway. Perfect little Alice. I’d hated her a lot in life, but death brought me some wisdom. I was just sad we weren’t ever going to be close, be like the sisters you saw in movies. I got to her bedroom while Dave was still pulling in the driveway. It was a Thursday night, so she was studying. I’d been out partying. Normally I’d have given her hell about it, but being dead, I just gave it a smile. The doorbell rang and we went downstairs together, her walking, me floating.

Dave held out the piece of a paper like a shield. “Here. Take this. It’s Angie’s she wants you to have it.”

“Then why doesn’t she give it to me herself?”

“She can’t okay? Just take it, Alice, don’t give me a hard time.” He held the lottery ticket out to her and my sister didn’t even look at it.

“A hard time? You show up with whatever that is and say she can’t give it to me and I’m not supposed to ask questions. What do you think you’re doing anyway?”

“I’m giving back what I took?”

“What you took? That doesn’t make any sense. What did you take?”

“He took my life.” I whispered it, but they both heard it. Alice looking right through me, right into the corner where I was standing and didn’t see me.

“He killed me.” Dave winced, because now I realized giving Alice what he’d stolen wasn’t enough.

“I want my life back!” I shouted it at him, screamed at him, filled with a rage only the unforgiving dead can feel. I stepped forward, forgetting that I couldn’t touch him and slugged him. I’d hit Dave before, just like he’d hit me. Never in the middle class living room my mom loved, never in front of Alice, but yeah, I’d decked him once or twice. This was a thousand times worse than that. I hit him with everything I had.

He jerked. Just a little. It pissed me off, so I hit him more. “Stop!  I’m sorry, okay Angie? I’m really sorry. I’d take it back if I could. I mean it. I swear I didn’t mean to shoot you I just couldn’t help myself. Come on, Angie, ten million. You’d have shot me over five.”

I didn’t stop hitting him. I went lower, making him double over in pain. I went higher and he put his hands up to block me. The winning lotto ticket slipped to the floor. Now Alice did pick it up.

“You killed her? You killed my sister over this?” Alice screamed at him. My kid sister screamed at him while she cried.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry okay. I’d switch places with her if I could. I would. I swear to God I wish I could switch places with her.” I balled up my fist, ready to hit him again when a jolt of electricity came through my chest. It hurt.

In front of me Dave put his hand to his heart.

I blinked, but the pain in my chest stayed there. It hurt worse than getting shot. Worse than dying. But Dave was the one moaning now. Alice watched him for a second, then kicked him square in the chest, pushing him out the door. I heard my little sister dial 9-1-1 but underneath it I heard someone say clear. I looked at Alice, my winning lotto ticket in her hand, telling an operator to send the cops. Then I looked up and saw the bright lights of an operating room. My chest hurt, everything hurt, I was in a hospital, a bunch of people were working on me, but I was smiling. Smiling because  I had a feeling Dave had traded places with me, and now that I had a second life I sure as hell wasn’t going to be a loser any more.

The Creek People

The Bottoms contained an assortment of blacks, Irish, drunks, and whores along with other undesirables. There were children, skinny legged, sad eyed, always hungry children. The river wrapped around the narrow spit of land in the shape of a V, crossed on one side by Matthew’s bridge, a half rotten wooden bridge, and on the other by a set of marshy pathways. Some of the people there were good but it was not a good place to live. When times got better they expected to move on to ground that didn’t flood every time it rained. In the meantime they kept their few valuables high and the food higher, and hoped for a dry summer.

 

At Christmas time the good ladies of the many church auxiliaries would come out with baskets of food and toys for the children. On these obligatory gift giving trips they called that side of town the Creek, as if the fifteen feet wide river was just a trickle of water and the people there Creek people as if they were some tribe of mismatched Indians. The Creek people tolerated this, since smiling and agreeing meant a heavy Christmas ham while reminding the fine Christian Ladies of their prejudices brought nothing.

 

There were signs that summer, little ways the animals changed, that told anyone who was looking that there would be a storm, a bad one. Just how bad no one could say for sure but everyone agreed that something should be done about Matthew’s bridge. No one did anything, of course. It was July, and hot, and not nearly close enough to Christmas for the ladies to care about the Creek people but they all agreed just the same. It was the depression and money was scare enough for the decent people of the town, let alone for the Creek people. So when the storm came and the rain pounded the earth, everyone knew that if they went to the Creek Matthew’s bridge might be nothing but a pile of sticks drifting on the water. They knew, and yet they dawdled. They put on rain boots, they checked the skies hoping for signs that it would clear, and finally they went out.

 

As if by some mystic shared knowledge all the cars stopped twenty feet from where Matthew’s bridge had been. That put them a good ten feet away from the edge of the river, the one they had mockingly called a creek all these years. No one would call it a creek now. It surged with brown foamy water, overflowing its banks, chewing up trees as if they were nothing. The bridge was gone. There would be no easy way to help the Creek people.

 

And those people needed help. They lined the other side of the river, children crying, mothers looking on in mute appeal. Even the drunks sobered up at the sight of that river rising. Water already lapped at their feet on the undesirable side of the river and they all knew that if they didn’t get to higher ground soon there would be no getting away from the hungry river.

 

The town fathers, good white men all, consulted each other. The good ladies smiled, and shouted promises. But there was no way any of them would get into that river. Not now, when half a tree floated by, the trunk a mess of spikes. They needed boats, they all agreed, and the boats were back at home. The rain opened up then, coming down harder, faster, when everyone on both sides of the river hoped it would stop.

 

But it didn’t. The men from town herded their families back into cars, and the ladies’ promises changed. They’d be back, with boats! Soon. Stay away from the edge children. We’ll be back as quick as we can. But at home the boats were tied up tight, brought inside from the storm. Lightening crashed and the men debated if it was safe for them to carry the boats, safe to drive so close to the river. Anyone who would normally argue for the Creek people instead bit their lip, looked at the storm, and shivered. The rain kept coming.

 

Under the pounding of the rain a new sound, a low wailing. The Creek people were drowning. A child first, or maybe a father, trying to do something to stop the inevitable water. Wailing followed by screams, shouts for help. Oh please, God someone help us. And the good people of the town stayed inside and pretended not to hear.

 

Were they safe then, those good people? Were they following good sense and not drowning in the cause of helping someone else? Self preservation or calloused indifference? Was there any difference between the two? Not on that night.

 

And not on this one either. Almost a hundred years later, a storm harder and faster than anything anyone can remember. A different town now, with no Creek. The undesirables in public housing, cinderblocks of neglect. Out by the river those decedents of good people who once were deaf look out at the sky the way their forefathers did, with a sense of foreboding. Because it is a town without a Creek but not without Creek people, and they are coming, coming up out of the river in the middle of the storm. Hollow eyed children with wet slick skin, mothers bent on vengeance. Coming for the people that promised to come back but never did. Coming for their due. As the rain pounds down and lightening crashes, the Creek people rise.

 

Morning Coffee

coffee mug photo by mirranda from stock.xchng“Don’t know why you bother.”

The woman had an accent, a soft southern thing that most people probably found comforting. Nancy took her hand out from under her father’s hand, arranged his fingers back in place, and patted him gently before she stood up.

“Some of them, it’s like the body is there but the soul’s already gone.”

Nancy didn’t bother to reply. Alzheimer’s could strike at anytime, but it had taken her father when he was still young. In high school she’d barely noticed when Dad forgot things or needed directions, now, just ten years later he barely spoke. She missed him. Sometimes holding his hand and remembering the things he had said made her feel better. That was why she bothered.

“Tommy asked me marry him,” she whispered to the man on the bed. “It’s not the way I thought it would be, but I’m going to be a bride. I just wish you could walk me down the aisle.”

She gave him a quick kiss and headed home. She had a lot to do, but she’d wanted her Dad to be the first to know.

###

The smell of coffee called her out of a deep sleep. For a second she was sixteen again, ready to take her driver’s test. Dad made coffee. Then her memories shifted forward, she was going to her first day at work, fueled with a cup of coffee the way Dad made it. Then back again, to her college graduation, how much her head had hurt with the hangover, how Dad had left the coffee by the side of her bed. She finally came fully awake and realized that today wasn’t one of those super important days. Except that maybe it was, since this was the first morning she’d woken up engaged. Her smile turned into a frown as her feet hit the floor. She really did smell coffee.

Down the hall she brushed it away. The visit to the nursing home made her think about Dad, which made her think about coffee which made her-

She stopped in the kitchen watching the old coffee pot sputter to a finish.

“Good morning sweetheart.”

“Daddy?”

It didn’t make a second’s worth of sense, but there was her father, looking healthy and hale in a plaid shirt and worn blue jeans.

“You kept my coffee pot.”

“It still works and, uh…” she looked at him sitting at the small breakfast table as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

“Why don’t I get that for you?” He stood up with a grace he hadn’t had for years and took the empty coffee cup from her hand. She couldn’t think of what to say, how to tell him this was just unnatural, which question to ask first. “I’ve been thinking about what you said, about Tommy.” He added one sugar to the cup, then one tablespoon of creamer. “You know I always want what’s best for you, and if you’re happy I’m happy but…”

It was so Dad, to let his voice trail off like that, so normal. “But?”

“I want you to have the kind of love your mother and I had before she died. I know you’re alone a lot and it’s easy to want someone there for you but…”

He passed her the mug and she took her first sip, waiting for him to finish.

“But for heaven’s sake Nancy, if you want companionship get a dog. Don’t marry this man just because he asked. You’re worth  more than that.”

She laughed halfway through the first taste of coffee, the warm liquid getting caught in her throat. “Oh Dad.”

“Now don’t you oh Dad me. Do you love him? I mean with all your heart and soul? Is he perfect for you?”

“Well, no.” She took another drink of coffee. She wanted this to be some sentimental moment, but she knew that stern look in his eyes.

“Then why are you settling? You’re not lazy, never have been. Or don’t you think it’s worth the work?”

“I… I don’t know. I guess I never thought about it,” she stammered, caught like a little kid. In the bedroom her alarm clock clicked on, even out in the kitchen she could hear it.

“Well, looks like it time for me to go. Think about it though. He’s not worth you, baby-girl.” Her father took the coffee mug from her, gave her a warm hug, and then walked toward the front door.  She could only stand there, still confused, the alarm ringing in her ears.

“Dad, wait! I love you.” She started but he was half out the door.

“I know and I love you too. Now go get that alarm.”

He shut the door and left, giving her nothing to do but to follow his orders. In the bedroom, the alarm screeched its fury at being ignored. She sat on the side of her bed trying to work through what had just happened, she could hit the button to silence the alarm without thinking, she could talk to Dad without thinking, but understanding what had just happened… that would take a lot of thinking.

Except she realized, that maybe it didn’t. Maybe it was all just a dream. She looked around the bedroom at the sunlight coming in, the alarm clock, the bed. Probably a dream.  It wouldn’t hurt to check and be sure.

The same nurse picked up the phone, her accent making the words a song, “St. Francis Nursing Center.”

“This is Nancy, I was visiting my Dad in 103 last night.”

“I remember, sugar.” It sounded like sug-ahh and only made the morning seem more unreal.

“How is he?” She  stopped, cutting herself off, not wanting to know the answer. What if her father had died in the night? What if the dream was meant to tell her that? What if-

“Same as he was. I told you, sugar, sometimes the soul’s moved on but the body’s still here.”

“Right. Of course. Thank you.” She hung up the phone, looked around the room again, then decided: it was a dream. It could be nothing else. The father she loved was gone, the only thing left was a shell. As much as she wanted it, her father would not magically recover to give her advice. She reminded herself of that through her shower, and while she got dressed. On her way to the kitchen for breakfast she took a final check in the mirror. Everything looked fine except the engagement ring.If it was a dream that meant her subconscious thought Tommy wasn’t right for her. She slipped the ring off her hand. It wasn’t the first time she’d thought that. Maybe she should just get a dog.

With her mind on the best way to give back the ring she walked into the kitchen and picked up the coffee that was waiting for her. It was cold and she dumped it to pour a fresh cup, never stopping to wonder who made the pot.

 

 

 

The Conduit

“Your Great-aunt is dead.” My father makes the announcement in the middle of dinner and suddenly my day is so much more exciting. I have hated Great-aunt Patty with a passion and loved tormenting her more than anything else. “The funeral will be tomorrow. You’re both coming.”

My meat grows tasteless in my mouth. My Great-aunt is gone, now the only one left for me to tease and bully is my brother. I flash him a smile, letting him know things are going up a notch now that he’s the sole recipient of my attention. “May I be excused?”

My father nods but my brother protests. “It’s her night for the dishes. You never make her do them. She’s such a brat.” I’m out of the room but not before I savor hearing him get yelled at.

###

Standing in my Great-aunt’s room I know my brother is wrong. If I was spoiled I would’ve gotten the car I wanted for my sweet sixteen. Instead I just had a party. Sure it was a big party, everyone was there, but it wasn’t the same as a car. I remembered telling Patty about it with a smile.

“Have you ever kissed a boy?”

Her hand went to her mouth, touching her lips, but she didn’t speak. She was always like that, a little dotty, a little frail.

“I did. At the party.” I gestured out her windows, down to the pool and the yard beyond. From Patty’s attic room you could see all the way to the mine. My father runs the most profitable mine in the state. When you ask him about it all he says is ‘Cartwrights know how to manage people’. The mine pays for everything I ask for, like the party and all the people who went to it. Like Jeremy Brandt, the senior who kissed me, his hands were so warm. “I let him do everything he wanted.”

Patty’s eyes get wide, shocked and jealous all at once.

“It was wonderful.” It wasn’t, but I would never tell her that. It was messy and a little painful, not that fun at all, but I still want to do it again. “You’ve never even been kissed and I’ve already done that.”

I smiled daggers at her and left the attic. It was the last time I saw her alive. I’m sorry I didn’t think of something better to say, something to really get to her.

###

The funeral is in the family chapel. It’s a boring stone building made by some great-great-grandfather. All of the workers from the mine offices are here, all of the supervisors and foremen, but never the miners. We never see the miners. Mist shrouds the day, a heavy fog that comes inside the little chapel. I watch it gathering in the corners, piling up like drifts of snow, trying to tune out my father’s eulogy.

“She led men to the light. She was our conduit and for that we are all grateful.”

It’s all lies, of course, she never led anything anywhere. She never even left her room. The men shuffle out of the chapel, not looking me in the eye. For a minute I’m worried that what I did with Jeremy has gotten out, that they all know. But that’s impossible, Patty is the only one I told. Besides, it’s not like I’d get in trouble if they found out. Dad lets me get away with anything.

###

The mist gets thicker has night falls, climbing into the corners of the house. It doesn’t bother me, though I want to shout up and down the halls. I’m so glad to be free of the sad influence in the attic. I spend some time on the phone, watch some TV. When I get to my room my brother is already there, unplugging the cords on my laptop.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m taking it.”

“No, you’re not. I’ll tell Dad.”

“Go ahead. He said I could have it. You’re not going to need it anymore.”

“Liar. I need it for school.”

“You’re not going to school. You’re going to get sick like Aunt Patty, and never leave the house again.” His singsong voice scares me. He’s too happy for this to be a lie.

“Dad!” I shout, drawing his name out. My father always comes when I call. Except this time.

I find him in the attic, sitting on Patty’s small bed. The sheets have been changed, like someone is going to sleep there. He seems so sad, I think maybe he’s going to sleep there but that’s crazy.

“Dad?”

“I’m sorry.” He looks up at me with red rimmed eyes, like he’s been crying. I’ve never seen my Dad cry.

“John says I’m not going to school. That I’m sick. I’m not sick.”

“But you’re seeing things aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not-” Except that the fog has come into Patty’s room and suddenly I don’t think it’s fog any more. “What’s going on,” I demand.

“It’s what we do.” He pulls himself back, like someone grabbed his shoulders. “No amount of money would get men with something to live for into that mine but lost souls will do anything for a chance at moving on. And for them to move on you need a conduit.”

“A what?”

“The first one, your great-great-great-grandmother, I guess she did it because it was the right thing to do but now, it’s about the mine. Without that mine this family has nothing, so… this is what we do.” He looks at me for a long time, and then hugs me. “Goodbye, sweetheart.”

“Daddy?” I’m so stunned I don’t move, not as he gets up, not as he pulls the door shut but the latch clicking in place breaks me free. I’m at the knob in a second, pulling and shouting. “Let me out! Daddy let me out!”

There’s silence and then the sound of my brother’s laughter. I know he’s been listening the whole time, waiting for this.

“John, let me out.”

“Nope.” He sounds so smug. I think of all the times I’ve hit him or gotten him in trouble. I should’ve done it worse, a thousand times worse. “Dad says it takes something out of you, so in a week or two we won’t even have to lock the door.”

The mist in the corners looks heavier suddenly, like it’ll form into something soon. I don’t want to be there when it does. I grab the knob and yank it hard, but the wooden door frame holds.

“I get your computer, and all your stuff. I get to tell everyone how sick you are.” He’s giddy with it. Thrilled. “And when I grow up I get the mine and the house, and the whole time, you’ll still be in this little room.”

“John, John, please.” But he doesn’t say anything else. He’s gone. That was his parting shot. I don’t want to turn around, don’t want to look away from the door, but eventually I do. There are faces now, in the mist, faces with eyes. They’re looking at me, coming toward me. Coming toward the conduit.

Night Cobbler

It never failed, even on vacation her body woke up promptly at 5:45, just when the alarm at home would have gone off. Still, it meant Amanda could sip tea on a balcony overlooking Bourbon street as the sun came up. It meant she could walk the French Quarter in the early morning quiet and pretend no one else was alive. With all that she didn’t mind getting up so early.

The open sign no longer screamed, but now whispered, the red color long ago faded from bright to a dusty orange. Dust seemed to have won the interior of the shop as well, with a few cobwebs joining it. She looked through the plate glass windows at racks upon racks of shoes: high wooden stands with beautiful heels on top, boots lining the wall. For a woman whose one true love in life was shoes, it looked more like a treasure chest or a box of candy. She checked her watch, then the old sign in front of her. They opened at 10, she had time for a beignet at Café Dumont.

Except that a beignet turned into two, and then a walk in the Farmer’s market, until her first day in New Orleans became her first sunset over the Mississippi, and then her first dinner. Now she walked alone, the night crowd just taking over the French Quarter. She took a minute to watch them, the coupled up, the coupling. As always she walked alone. It seemed to turn out that way, no matter where she was. Too shy to speak up, to quiet to get noticed. She wanted to be part of the party, the center of it, loud and brash, but in the end she was a wallflower with a closet full of beautiful shoes.

Loneliness and desire threatened to take over her, she insisted her mind stop it, this was her vacation, her holiday, this would be different. But it wasn’t until the shoe shop came into view that she smiled. A new sign appeared in the door, ‘Night Cobbler’, in large flowing script, underneath it ‘custom orders and repairs’. She tried the door again, and this time it opened.

“You’re open?” She asked. The empty space surrounded her as she walked inside, quiet and smelling like leather and furniture polish. The dust she saw through the window seemed to stop there. Here everything sparkled. Her eyes fell first on a pair of blue leather boots, the front made of wide straps secured with large black buttons. She’d never seen a pair like them.

“Open at ten.” A gruff voice startled her, but when she jumped she saw another pair of boots, bright red Chinese silk, stamped with multiy colored dragons. “It’s 10:15.”

“Yes, but 10:15 at night. The sign said 10 in the morning.”

“The sign said 10.” The man looked old, at least sixty or maybe seventy, and not too happy.

“How much are these?” She pointed to the red boots.

“Not for sale. Not to you.”

“Well what about these?” She pointed to the blue boots.

“Nah, not for you. Those are vampire boots.”

“Vampire?”

But the old man had already walked away. She turned and examined the wares. Shoes of every color and variety, each pair more exquisite then the last. Kitten heels in silks and satins, with feathers and sequins. Furred boots, leather boots, a variety of colors she’d never seen collected in one place. On the men’s side she found brogans and oxfords. Shoes like her grandfather wore, somehow brand new and smelling of polish.

Her eyes drew back to the boots, the boots the woman she wanted to be wore every night. Boots that said she didn’t care how much her feet hurt, she was beautiful and that mattered more. Her fingers couldn’t stop from touching them, caressing the soft blue leather, then the red silk. She was so lost in the shoes that she didn’t turn when the bell on the door tinkled. But soon the noise, the raucous laughter forced her to look.

Vampires. Of course they were. Here for the vampire shoes. Everyone of them beautiful and perfect and loud. Unashamed to be what they were, the women wore dresses from every era. Not a hair out of place, their makeup and clothes exactly done.

And the men! Handsome, and more handsome still. Her heart thudded against her rib cage. The first was perfect and blond, tall and handsome. Then a dark haired brooding Heathcliff came into the room. Next she saw a ruddy Irishmen with a thick brogue and perfect waves of red hair. It was almost as bad as picking only one of the shoes on display.

“Are you new, sweetie?” The woman wore diamonds dripping from her ear to her bare shoulders, her dark hair pulled out of the way. Blood red lips matched her nails. She was exactly the kind of woman no one ever called a wallflower.

“I’m…” But the woman had been pulled into a reel; they were dancing in the aisles of the cobbler’s shop. Outside a gunshot rang out, an antebellum duel was being fought in the garden.  Amanda couldn’t help herself from gasping when the victim of the shooting got up, laughed loudly and handed his pistol over to the next pair of duelist.

“They do it every night.” The woman was back, breathless from her dance. “For centuries. I’d rather see the dancing, have you seen it? The burlesque off St. Charles street?”

Amanda shook her head.

“You have to see it, come with us!” She called to her friends, and suddenly all of them wanted Amanda to join in. It was a daydream come true, if you ignored the long canines and the blood staining the gunshot victim’s perfect vest.

“I’m not dressed.” It was the weakest excuse, and she didn’t even know why she gave it. Here was everything she ever wanted, every man she ever imagined, every delight, why was she hesitating?

“You know what I say? Change your shoes and change your life.” The woman, the vampire, pointed to the racks. “Pick a pair, and meet us down the street, we don’t walk fast. Come away with us.”

“Yes. Of course, yes. I’ll just pick a pair and…” But the shop was emptying, the cash register ringing up final sales and everyone leaving. Amanda turned, her heart set on the blue boots, when something white caught her eye.

Small satin slippers, decorated with tiny roses along the top, peeked out from a low shelf. White satin Mary Janes, a child’s shoe, a baby’s shoe. “Are these vampire shoes too?”

“No. Not for sale to those types. They wouldn’t ever want to either.” The old man snorted his disapproval and Amanda agreed with him. The white shoes didn’t appeal the way the boot did, but they were lovely, delicate. Another day dream she had once.

A noise in the garden pulled her outside, only two of them left, a young woman in wide sack backed gown struggled against the blond man Amanda had admired just a moment ago. The altercation looked intimate, the man’s head darted to kiss her neck, but even then the girl fought, saying no again and again.

“But you came out with us, little one, you danced with us. You keep coming back, this must be what you want.” His mouth went to her throat again, and in the moonlight Amanda saw blood flash black. She backed into the store, frightened and running into shelves. Shoes toppled, and fear made her trip.

A pair of strong hands caught her, calloused and rough. She grabbed the man at the waist, feeling the warmth of his tan skin, the safety in his dark brown eyes. Without thinking she kissed him, her body melting against his, falling in love with him before she even knew his name.

“Who are you?”

“The Cobbler’s Apprentice. They won’t follow you in here. There’s no biting in the shop. You’re safe.”

“I…” She looked at him, thought about the boots and the baby shoes. She wasn’t ready to buy the baby shoes, not today, but she wanted them, someday. The way she wanted this man. “I’d like to stay with you.”

“But you said you’d go out with them, and you can’t break your word to them.”

She had said it, and a part of her still wanted it, to dance, to be the desirable one, just for one night. “Will you be here when I get back?”

“Always,” he said and she trusted the promise in his warm lips.